Wasteland 2 is gearing up for beta. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with inXile CEO Brian Fargo about what the test involves, how final development is going and why the game could kill you in its first five seconds.
I think Brian Fargo might be the developer I’ve spoken to most in all my years of tapping out words about games. The discussions are frank, fun and actually full of useful information. There’s no hyperbole, over-hyped promises or marketing bollocks, just the honest views of a man who feels humbled by how many of you invested in his dream project on Kickstarter.
Let’s be honest though, with so many members of the public – 61,290 people – serving as Wasteland 2’s investors – to the tune of $2,933,252 – Fargo and his team can’t afford to bullshit people around, not that he ever would. Transparency is one of crowd-funding’s most endearing aspects. You get to see exactly where your investment has gone, and with it, monitor projects as they progress. Proper, liberating wallet-voting at its finest.
“I’d have 50 or 60 people in QA, I’d have myself and team. That would be the only data I could source to see if we were doing the right things in a game. But now, that QA department is 10,000 people, and it’s even better than that, it’s the actual players themselves, not a QA department that I’m paying to look at it.”
The same goes for Wasteland 2’s beta, which will give backers an almost complete exposé of inXile’s myriad mechanics. It’s both a full disclosure and a chance for gamers to offer valuable feedback to make the project even better. Make no mistake, this is a big time for one of crowd-funding’s earliest gaming success stories, so I gave Fargo a bell on Skype to see what’s-what. It ended up being a great chat so I’ve transcribed it in full Q&A fashion so nothing gets lost. Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comments.
VG247: I thought I’d get in touch and speak with you about the upcoming beta, how far the game has come and all of that, so thanks for taking some time to chat.
Brian Fargo: “Well, it’s a good story considering I’ve been trying to get his thing made for 20 years.”
VG247: [Laughs] Let’s kick off with where you guys are at right now.
Fargo: “There’s two priorities. One is to get the beta out into our backer’s hands by [this] week. They’ve helped us shape this game up until now, with things like the UI on the main game screen. We’ve made five iterations back and forth with the audience and they helped make it better than it would have been otherwise, and so we’re going to take that same – and everybody talks about it, but it’s really true – how the fan interaction can make things better if you’re a good listener.
“So one is to get that into their hands so we can start getting feedback, and of course the other half of production is to not slow down so we can keep marching toward getting the product done. But this week is a critical one because it’s the first time people are going to be able to get their hands on it and play it.”
VG247: Because this is a critical time – as you say – and useful obviously, is there anything you’re going to be looking at particularly during the beta, Like specific metrics or traits?
Fargo: “There’s so many different fronts to look at. I think the more important thing to me – which is not as tangible – is that people feel that philosophically and design-wise we are creating what they were expecting to see. We laid out in a lot of detail in our vision document, which we put up early on in the process, and said, ‘this is what we think defines a good role-playing game and what we think Wasteland is about from a tone perspective.’
“I think to see if they think this is capturing what their expectations were, that’s what’s most important to me, because everything else like adjusting AI, changing UI, balancing, that’s more straightforward stuff. For me, it’s that element I’m looking towards the most, and the thing is we have this in some people’s hands who are sort of hardcore players and critics – I say ‘critics’ in that hey have discerning eyes – and then we have people like Chris Avellone who, while he wrote some of it, hasn’t really seen it for a year. He hasn’t played it.
“So we’ve been putting it into people’s hands saying, ‘okay, what do you think?’ The response has been super, and we’d love to add more choice, more reactivity and subtlety, which is what we plan to do. This is a new process to me because I would never put something this early into the public, you know, I’m sort of used to getting things out much further along, but fortunately having gone through this up to date, the positives far outweigh the negatives.”
VG247: One thing I loved from one of our earlier interviews was when you said that the backers were kind of like your bosses. I think that’s a really interesting and lovely way to look at it. You said it’s still quite early days, but these guys helped make it in essence, so I’m guessing they’d be more forgiving if something was broken and eager to offer advice.
Fargo: “And plus, it’s not like ‘hey we’re done, sorry it didn’t turn out okay.’ The process is more, ‘Here you go, now help us make it even better,’ so we’ll be able to take that feedback. You look for macro issues, I mean every person might have a slightly different opinion on things so you can’t dial in every idea in the world. That’s my job as the editor, but it used to be that I had a QA department.
“I’d have 50 or 60 people in QA, I’d have myself and team. That would be the only data I could source to see if we were doing the right things in a game. But now, that QA department is 10,000 people, and it’s even better than that, it’s the actual players themselves, not a QA department that I’m paying to look at it. So, it’s really refined everything.”
“You can die in the first five seconds of gameplay. You start off at a funeral scene, and if you want to pick the shovel up and start digging up the grave of the guy who just got buried in front of the other Desert Rangers, you’re dead.”
VG247: And I guess you yourself are on the front lines and closer to that feedback than ever before.
Fargo: “More than ever before. I mean, in the late 90s when I was doing those role-playing games social media isn’t what it is today, so we didn’t have that connection. We might have got letters in the mail but that’s not the same [Laughs].
“We have a lot of pressure on this game to make it good because we raised a lot of money from Kickstarter and I think people want to see something successful come out of it, especially developers because they want another good success story of why Kickstarter makes sense. I am reminded of that every day. Fortunately, I do have this process of being able to work with the audience, to hone it, otherwise it would be terrifying.”
VG247: The audience in many cases can be an excellent yardstick of how a project is going, and to bounce things back and forth to see if you’re making the right calls. But as you said, you have to look at the macro complaints because otherwise you’d get into a ‘design by committee gone mad’ thing and the project would suffer.
Fargo: “Yeah exactly, and I think it’s a point that, some people get concerned that by doing this it turns it into a design by committee, and that isn’t the case at all. To me it’s about getting the feedback before you ship rather than after you ship. I’ve always listened to people. You know, you could put things in with the best of intentions but does it read well, or maybe we could have messaged it better, or maybe we didn’t add sound effects in to really sell the point?
“Now I would get that feedback from before from the team or QA, so now I’ve just got a better group to go upon. So the concept of me listening to feedback from people playing the product, that’s always been there, and I think the best producers of these things are the ones that know how to listen well.”
VG247: I’d agree with that definitely. So I’m aware we’re straying a bit from the actual beta itself so can I clarify one thing? I understand this beta is 95% complete in terms of mechanics. Is that correct?
Fargo: “Not exactly. What it is, is about 90% of the game’s underpinning, so all the systems are in place and in some ways it will feel like a finished product. You’ve got combat, UI, inventory, the majority of the skills working, sound effects and you will get a sense of the game. However, we’re only giving away a portion of Arizona to play, and that was always the plan because we didn’t want to have spoilers and ruin the whole thing.
“We can get enough out of this first group to help us dictate the second half of it. That said, we’ll have a smaller group look at it, but we never intended to go live with the whole thing. You’re really kind of getting a snap-shot of the Arizona levels, and there’s four main areas and a bunch of smaller areas that we’re putting out, then through the beta process over the next couple of months, we’ll continue to release a couple more areas for Arizona. But we will hold Los Angeles back.”
VG247: That overworld map sounds brutal. It really does with dehydration, being jumped by raiders and without any sign-posting to let you know where the harder encounters are. It’s sort of your own fault if you die when wandering around and that to me sounds pretty hardcore. It’s a bit like Demon’s Souls where if you’e dying a lot you’re probably not ready for an area yet. Does that difficulty scale at all?
Fargo: “There’s two parts to dying in the game which really strikes to the difficulty level. First of all, you can die in the first five seconds of gameplay. You start off at a funeral scene, and if you want to pick the shovel up and start digging up the grave of the guy who just got buried in front of the other Desert Rangers, you’re dead.”
”Once Fallout 3 became a huge success I thought that me going and pitching publishers, that would be the thing that would make it a cinch. I’d say, ‘hey look at Fallout 3, it just sold 3-4 million copies. I’ve got the grandfather. Now let’s do it.’ And I still got nowhere.”
VG247: [laughs] Jesus.
Fargo: “But you get a warning, and you pretty much blame yourself for that. There are lot of things where the signs were there, you acted inappropriately, and it’s not like it just says ‘game over.’ You’re in a combat that you could theoretically win if you had higher-level characters, but it’s not going to happen, so there are areas like that. I like that. Have you ever read a book where you’re 50 or 100 pages in and they kill a major character, and you’re like ‘wow,’ and then the rest of the book is a little more tense?”
VG247: Because suddenly everyone’s fair game?
Fargo: “Yeah, there’s this feeling that anyone could die at any time, like Game of Thrones does a brilliant job of that. I like the fact that if you do stupid things it will result in death, and that it keeps the tension high for other areas. So that’s part number one. Number two is, we do make it clear where you’re supposed to go, in that we want to make objectives clear because for me, that just makes good sense for players.
“However, if you want to go wandering off the beaten path and find other things, fantastic. But again, you have to blame yourself if you want to go off into the desert. You might find another area, you might find a map full of robots. If you can fight them, win it and get some upgraded weapons it’s going to make some of those early maps easier, but it comes back again to the users making the choices themselves. I always try to focus on, ‘it’s okay if people die as long as they’re blaming themselves,’ for the most part.”
VG247: Letting people do what they want and then suffer the consequences or reap great reward is – to me – the essence of any good role-playing game.
Fargo: “Yes, you’re acting how you would act and you’d like to see the people in the game react the way people are supposed to react. That’s when it get’s tricky because people always want to take it ten levels deep. Like, ‘well I offended him so now his wife should be mad at me, and his kids,’ They want to go and go and go.
“It’s always tricky to find that spot but in this first beta it won’t get the total sense of what we’re talking about because not all the maps are in Arizona. There are many areas you can go off to early on and have those experiences happen. Those aren’t all in this beta yet, but they will certainly be in the final build. So, it’s not that there’s not much of that, but there’s not as much as there’s going to be.”
VG247: So LA and Arizona each have their own overworld map?
Fargo: LA is a whole other map.
VG247: Cool. You guys also recently released the original Wasteland online. Have you had any kind of metrics back from that in terms of who’s playing it, newcomers and feedback?
Fargo: “It seems like we have two sets of players. We have the people who played the original Wasteland, and they’re loving it because we have so many call-backs to the first one [in Wasteland 2], so it’s like stepping into a comfortable pair of shoes. There are characters we talk about, little subtle nuances like flags around the Rangers Citadel. Anyone who played the original will remember the flags around the Guardian Citadel.
“New players are going to go ‘flags? Who cares?’ while old players will say ‘ah yes, the flags.’ I love that part of it. The other part of the group are the people who played Fallout and they like the tone of it. The Fallout players that we’ve seen really liked it because they feel like we’ve done a nice job of capturing the mood and vibe of that world. The two groups will be approaching it differently depending on what they’re looking for, to some degree.”
VG247: Wasteland was obviously the inspiration for Fallout so it’s interesting that people are coming back and comparing it to Wasteland 2. Was Wasteland 2 inspired by how well the Fallout revival was doing?
Fargo: “I’ve been non-stop trying to make it the whole time. It never stops. Certainly there was the Fallout revival, but even before Bethesda came out with Fallout 3, I had already acquired the rights for Wasteland, so I was already trying to do it. Once Fallout 3 became a huge success I thought that me going and pitching publishers, that would be the thing that would make it a cinch. I’d say, ‘hey look at Fallout 3, it just sold 3-4 million copies. I’ve got the grandfather. Now let’s do it.’ And I still got nowhere. [laughs]. I’m lucky that all the publishers said no. Who would have thought?
VG247: [laughs] God, but you’ve managed it still.
Fargo: “You know what’s interesting is, when I’d go out and talk to the press about game design or ideas, they would always get it, then I’d talk to the gamers and they’d get it. Then I’d talk in these rooms, these pitch meetings and they didn’t get it. I’d pitch the game and their questions would be, ‘how many weapons are in it?’ I’d be like, ‘who cares? I’ll know what the number is later but that’s not the point.’ I’d get all of these inane questions, so it’s been perfect that it ended up this way.”
”Now you look at Kickstarter with Tim Schafer, Richard Garriott, Chris Avellone, all these people are finally able to utilise their body of work and their name to make things happen. There was no value when you went to talk to publishers. They could care less.”
VG247: What’s the stupidest question a publisher asked you?
Fargo: “Well I had one publisher say, ‘we don’t want to do games based on franchises, we want to do new stuff,’ which, for a publisher to say that just cracked me up because [laughs] their whole business model is re-doing stuff.”
VG247: [Laughs] That’s the antithesis of publishers.
Fargo: “I know, and which publisher would you point to as being a great example of that? This publisher did almost all licensed products so I kind of laughed at that one. There were some who had heard of Fallout, but that was about it. I had other meetings where I’d go in and they were younger. I have no ego about it but they should at least know my product heritage, but I stepped through some of the games I’d done and they weren’t familiar. I asked, have you heard of Interplay?’ and they’d say, ‘not really.’ I just thought, ‘oh boy am I screwed.'”
VG247: That’s absolutely crazy, but how times have changed. Who could have predicted just how aggressively Sony is targeting the indie space today?
Fargo: “That’s one of the other benefits of crowd funding and the indie movement too. For years we wanted people to be recognised for their work as an individual, and so that it had some value. But now you look at Kickstarter with Tim Schafer, Richard Garriott, Chris Avellone, all these people are finally able to utilise their body of work and their name to make things happen. There was no value when you went to talk to publishers. They could care less.”
VG247: But here you are doing it, and making something that feels attuned to the source. It’s clear you’re passionate about it and want to see it sit comfortably alongside what went before. The best part – I think – is that you’ve done it yourself.
Fargo: “We are incredibly passionate about the quality of the writing, the source material, the music and complete variation. There’s nothing worse than playing a game for four hours and then you’re just doing the same thing from there on out. LA is so radically different to Arizona with the cults and the broadcasts. I mean, were going to be serving up odd all the way to the end. [Laughs]”
Stay tuned for our appraisal of the Wasteland 2 beta soon.